Each month, the editors of the Oxford African American Studies Center provide insights into black history and culture by offering specially commissioned featured essays, photo collections, and a selected list of articles to further guide the reader. In this series, we’re exploring the people and musical styles that influenced the development of hip hop. Twice a week we’ll offer additional articles that expand on that topic. Today we’ll look at the jazz roots of hip hop by examining the charismatic stage presence and dapper style of the great Cab Calloway. Here is the entry on Calloway from the upcoming eight-volume African American National Biography:
Cab Calloway (25 Dec. 1907-18 Nov. 1994), popular singer and bandleader, was born Cabell Calloway III in Rochester, New York, the third of six children of Cabell Calloway Jr., a lawyer, and Martha Eulalia Reed, a public school teacher. In 1920, two years after the family moved to the Calloways’ hometown of Baltimore, Maryland, Cab’s father died. Eulalia later remarried and had two children with John Nelson Fortune, an insurance salesman who became known to the Calloway children as “Papa Jack.”
Although he later enjoyed a warm relationship with his stepfather, the teenaged Cab had a rebellious streak that tried the patience of parents attempting to maintain their status as respectable Baltimoreans. He often skipped school to go to the nearby Pimlico racetrack, where he both earned money selling newspapers and shining shoes and began a lifelong passion for horse racing. After his mother caught him playing dice on the steps of the Presbyterian church, however, he was sent in 1921 to Downingtown Industrial and Agricultural School, a reform school run by his mother’s uncle in Pennsylvania.
When he returned to Baltimore the following year, Calloway recalls that he resumed hustling but also worked as a caterer, and that he studied harder than he had before and excelled at both baseball and basketball at the city’s Frederick Douglass High School. Most significantly, he resumed the voice lessons he had begun before reform school, and he began to sing both in the church choir and at several speakeasies, where he performed with Johnny Jones’s Arabian Tent Orchestra, a New Orleans-style Dixieland band. In his senior year in high school, Calloway played for the Baltimore Athenians professional basketball team, and in January 1927 he and Zelma Proctor, a fellow student, had a daughter, whom they named Camay.
In the summer after graduating from high school, Calloway joined his sister Blanche, a star in the popular Plantation Days revue, on her company’s midwestern tour, and, by his own account, “went as wild as a March hare,” chasing “all the broads in the show” (Calloway, 54). When the tour ended in Chicago, Illinois, he stayed and attended Crane College (now Malcolm X University). While at Crane he turned down an offer to play for the Harlem Globetrotters, not, as his mother had hoped, to pursue a law career, but instead to become a professional singer. He worked nights and weekends at the Dreamland Café and then won a spot as a drummer and house singer at the Sunset Club, the most popular jazz venue on Chicago’s predominantly African American South Side. There he befriended Louis Armstrong, then playing with the Carroll Dickerson Orchestra, who greatly influenced Calloway’s use of “scat,” an improvisational singing style that uses nonsense syllables rather than words.
When the Dickerson Orchestra ended its engagement at the Sunset in 1928, Calloway served as the club’s master of ceremonies and, one year later, as the leader of the new house band, the Alabamians. His position as the self-described “dashing, handsome, popular, talented M.C. at one of the hippest clubs on the South Side” (Calloway, 61) did little to help his already fitful attendance at Crane, but it introduced him to many beautiful, glamorous, and rich women. He married one of the wealthiest of them, Wenonah “Betty” Conacher, in July 1928. Although he later described the marriage as a mistake, at the time he greatly enjoyed the “damned comfortable life” that came with his fame, her money, and the small house that they shared with a South Side madam.
In the fall of 1929 Calloway and the Alabamians embarked on a tour that brought them to the mecca for jazz bands of that era, Harlem in New York City. In November, however, a few weeks after the stock market crash downtown on Wall Street, the Alabamians also crashed uptown in their one chance for a breakout success, a battle of the bands at the famous Savoy Ballroom. The hard-to-please Savoy regulars found the Alabamians’ old-time Dixieland passé and voted overwhelmingly for the stomping, more danceable music of their rivals, the Missourians. The Savoy audience did, however, vote for Calloway as the better bandleader, a tribute to his charismatic stage presence and the dapper style in which he outfitted the Alabamians.
Four months later, following a spell on Broadway and on tour with the pianist Fats Waller in the successful Connie’s Hot Chocolate revue, he returned to the Savoy as the new leader of the Missourians, renamed Cab Calloway and His Orchestra. In 1931 the band began alternating with Duke Ellington’s orchestra as the house band at Harlem’s Cotton Club, owned by the gangster Owney Madden and infamous for its white-audiences-only policy. Calloway also began a recording career. Several of his first efforts for Brunswick Records, notably “Reefer Man” and “Kicking the Gong Around,” the latter about characters in an opium den, helped fuel his reputation as a jive-talking hipster who knew his way around the less salubrious parts of Manhattan. Although he denied firsthand experience of illicit drugs, Calloway did admit to certain vices-fast cars, expensive clothes, “gambling, drinking, partying [and] balling all through the night, all over the country” (Calloway, 184).
It was 1931’s “Minnie the Moocher,” with its scat-driven, call-and-response chorus, that became Calloway’s signature tune and propelled him to stardom. The most prosaic version of the chorus had Cab calling out, “Hi-de-hi-de-hi-di-hi, Ho-de-ho-de-ho-de-ho” or, when the mood took him, “Oodlee-odlyee-odlyee-oodle-doo” or “Dwaa-de-dwaa-de-dwaa-de-doo,” while his orchestra-and later the audience-responded with the same phrase. Calloway recalled in his autobiography that the song came first and the chorus was later improvised when he forgot the lyrics during a radio broadcast. The song’s appeal was broadened in 1932 by its appearance in the movie The Big Broadcast and in a Betty Boop cartoon short, Minnie the Moocher. Radio broadcasts from the Cotton Club and appearances on radio with Bing Crosby made Calloway one of the wealthiest entertainers during the Depression era. The Calloway Orchestra embarked on several highly successful national tours and in 1935 became one of the first major black jazz bands to tour Europe.
Although the Calloway Orchestra was arguably the most popular jazz band of the 1930s and 1940s, most jazz critics view the bands of Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Count Basie as more musically sophisticated. Albert L. Murray’s influential Stomping the Blues (1976) does not even mention Calloway, although it does list several members of his orchestra, including the tenor saxophonist Chu Berry and the trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, who joined the band in 1939 and left two years later, after he stabbed Calloway in the backside during a fight. With the drummer Cozy Cole and the vibraphonist Tyree Glenn, the Calloway Orchestra showcased its rhythmic virtuosity in several instrumentals, including the sprightly “Bye Bye Blues” and the sensual “A Ghost of a Chance,” both recorded in 1940.
It was, however, Calloway’s exuberant personality, his cutting-edge dress style-he was a pioneer of the zoot suit-and his great rapport with his audiences that packed concert halls for nearly two decades. In the 1940s he was ubiquitous, appearing on recordings, radio broadcasts of his concerts, and in movies such as Stormy Weather (1943), in which he starred with Lena Horn, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Katherine Dunham, and Fats Waller. In 1942, he hosted a satirical network radio quiz show, “The Cab Calloway Quizzicale.” Calloway even changed the way Americans speak, with the publication of Professor Cab Calloway’s Swingformation Bureau and The New Cab Calloway’s Hepsters Dictionary: Language of Jive (1944), which became the official jive language reference book of the New York Public Library. The Oxford English Dictionary credits Calloway’s song “Jitter Bug” as the first published use of that term.
The end of World War II marked dramatic changes in Calloway’s professional and personal lives. In 1948 the public preference for small combos and the bebop style of jazz, pioneered by Gillespie, among others, forced Calloway to break up his swing-style big band. One year later Calloway divorced Betty Conacher, with whom he had adopted a daughter, Constance, in the late 1930s, and married Zulme “Nuffie” McNeill, with whom he would have three daughters, Chris, Lael, and Cabella. His career revived, however, in 1950, when he landed the role of Sportin’ Life in the revival of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess on Broadway and in London and Paris. The casting was inspired, since Gershwin had modeled the character of Sportin’ Life on Calloway in his “Hi-de-hi” heyday. From 1967 to 1970 he starred with Pearl Bailey in an all-black Broadway production of Hello Dolly!, and in 1980 he endeared himself to a new generation of fans, with his performance of “Minnie the Moocher,” in the film The Blues Brothers, with John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd. That role led to appearances on the television shows The Love Boat and Sesame Street and on Janet Jackson’s music video “Alright,” which won the 1990 Soul Train award for best rhythm and blues/urban contemporary music video.
In June 1994 Calloway suffered a stroke at his home in White Plains, New York, and died five months later at a nursing home in Hockessin, Delaware. President Bill Clinton, who had awarded Calloway the National Medal of the Arts a year earlier, paid tribute to him as a “true legend among the musicians of this century, delighting generations of audiences with his boundless energy and talent” (New York Times, 30 Nov. 1994). Calloway, however, probably put it best when he described himself in his autobiography as, “the hardest jack with the greatest jive in the joint.”
- Calloway’s papers are held at Boston University
- Calloway, Cab, and Bryant Rollins; Of Minnie the Moocher and Me (1976)
- Schuller, Gunther; The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz, 1930-1945 (1989)
- Obituary: New York Times, 20 Nov, 1994
Featured Image Credit: ‘Cab Calloway Poster’, Image by Sam Howzit, CC by 2.0, via flickr.